World's space colonization plan has great vision, no money

100px-bob-mcdonald.jpgBy Bob McDonald, Quirks & Quarks

The international space community of 14 nations, including Canada, released a vision of the future for space exploration recently, which includes returning humans to the Moon and eventually travelling on to Mars. 

Too bad the money to do it is drying up.

The Global Exploration Roadmap involves building a small space station around the Moon, then a colony on the lunar surface, and finally using the Moon as a stepping stone to Mars.

The idea is to use the Moon as a dress rehearsal for a manned Mars mission. If any problems arise with the technology on the Moon, it can be dealt with reasonably quickly, because the Earth is only a few days away. But if something goes wrong on a direct mission to Mars, the crew would be entirely on their own, because the travel time to Mars for a rescue is at least seven months. That's a long time to wait for an ambulance. 

Also, from an energy point of view, it is less costly to reach Mars from the Moon than it is from the Earth, because of the Moon's lower gravity.

Canada's role in this grand scheme would be the same as it always has been in space: provide astronauts and robotics. Smaller versions of Canadarm 2, currently on the International Space Station, will be just as useful on a lunar outpost or on robotic vehicles sent ahead of time to survey the land.

But like all grand visions of space, there is the question of money. 

This is a multibillion-dollar prospect during a time when budgets to space agencies are being constantly cut back.

The Canadian Space Agency's budget is facing a 13 per cent cut. A new proposal in the U.S. Congress involves cutting NASA's budget by a billion dollars per year and shutting down one of its research centres.

This puts the space agencies in the uncomfortable position of trying to advance the exploration of space beyond Earth orbit - where we've been stuck for the last three decades - but having to do that with less money.

Grand visions of space exploration are not new. They began with President Kennedy's speech in 1961 that promised to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade.

This was just six weeks after the Soviet Union had embarrassed the United States by launching Uri Gagarin, the first human in orbit, and it was during the heat of the Cold War between the two superpowers. Kennedy was able to write blank cheques to spur the technology to make that happen for the sake of national pride and a show of American might.

With money as no object, fulfilling Kennedy's dream became the most remarkable short-term achievement in human history.

Since then, other presidents have had even bolder visions, but they didn't have that financial backing to pull them off.

On the 20th anniversary of the first moon landing, President George H. Bush announced the construction of a space station called Freedom, a return to the Moon, then a mission to Mars by 2019, which would be the 50th anniversary of that "one small step."

Nice idea - but the $500-billion price tag killed it. The space station that was built only happened with the co-operation of the Russians and a consortium of other countries.

George W. Bush proposed the same thing in 2004 and started the Constellation Program, which was a new system for getting to the Moon, but it went so over budget that President Obama cancelled it.

So here we are again: trying to get off the planet with the same vision and less money.

Well, at least, less government money.

One big difference this time around is the involvement of the private sector, which is proving that space travel needn't be so expensive.

SpaceX has already sent its Dragon Capsule to the International Space Station more than once, at a fraction of the cost NASA was spending, and is developing bigger rockets that could reach Mars. Bigelow Aerospace has sent prototypes of its inexpensive inflatable space stations into orbit, which could be used as outposts in lunar orbit and on the surface.

So, it's possible that this time around, the cost of the bold vision will not be such a huge barrier.

It is even possible that all of this grand vision will be beaten by a shortcut mission to Mars, the privately funded Mars One. This is a plan to reach the Red Planet at half the price - by not coming back. Thousands of people, including many Canadians,  have already applied and are willing to abandon the Earth forever.

Perhaps this is the solution for those who think public money is wasted on space exploration.  Let those who want to leave the Earth pay their own way.

Let's see if this time the vision gets off the ground.